Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chevron’s Deepwater Drilling: Blind Faith or Dump Luck?

Chevron has its own ticking time bomb in the Gulf of Mexico. The following article, from John Collins Rudolph, appeared on the New York Times' "Green Blog" today:

On a Wing and a Prayer: Chevron's Deep Well

One of the deepest offshore oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico lies beneath 7,000 feet of water and under more than 20,000 feet of rock and sand. Estimated to hold as much as 100 million barrels of crude, the field was discovered by Chevron in 2001, and production began in 2008. It is less than 20 miles west of the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

The name of the field, and the rig anchored above it, is Blind Faith.

It's a curious choice for a high-tech drilling operation pushing the boundaries of modern engineering, perhaps a bit like NASA naming a new shuttle "Dumb Luck." But there's an explanation: Blind Faith is in fact the name of a short-lived 1960s psychedelic rock supergroup, fronted by the guitar god Eric Clapton.

The investigative reporter and former 60 Minutes correspondent Peter W. Klein uncovered this factoid during a visit to the Blind Faith rig last summer while filming a story for ABC News on deepwater drilling. The segment features video of submersible robots thousands of feet down on the seafloor manipulating drilling equipment.

"When I asked the manager of Chevron's gulf rigs what he would do if there was a leak at his wellhead more than a mile down, he assured me they had robot-controlled devices that could handle any contingency," Mr. Klein wrote in a recent essay on the National Public Radio Web site.

In Congressional testimony this week, Chevron's chairman and chief executive, John S. Watson, testified that his wells and rigs – presumably including Blind Faith – were far safer than the BP well that continues to gush after 50-plus days of desperate attempts to cap it.

"We have multiple systems to prevent a tragedy like the Deepwater Horizon," Mr. Watson said. "Our drilling policies and procedures are rigorous. We require continuous training. We certify our drilling personnel to ensure they are qualified to manage unusual circumstances. And we verify that contractors have the skills to execute well control."

Mr. Watson joined three other oil company executives in rhetorically throwing BP under the bus during Wednesday's hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The leaders of Shell, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips also claimed that their deepwater operations were safe, and that it was negligence by BP – not the inherent risks of drilling in ultra-deep waters, or lax regulation of the industry – that led to the uncontrolled blowout.

Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the Democratic chairman of the committee, was having none of it.

"BP failed miserably when confronted with a real leak," Mr. Waxman said, "and Exxon Mobil and the other companies would do no better."

As for Blind Faith – well, it is perhaps BP, not Chevron, who could find some solace in one of the band's hits: "Had to Cry Today," by Steve Winwood.

"The feeling's the same as being outside of the law," the song laments. "Had to cry today."